Dad met me in Chicago’s bustling O’Hare Airport on a wintry night in 1987. Hugging him, I felt a man much thinner than two years before. Dad shrugged it off to touch football. We both laughed. I urged him to eat better and take vitamins.
We retrieved my luggage then headed to a nearby parking lot. After a few minutes of aimless plodding up and down the aisles, I said, “Where’s the car?”
“I guess it’s not here,” Dad said, tugging at his sparse gray hair.
Perplexed, Dad always had excellent recall. In his younger years, he made shopping lists but rarely used them. He knew everyone’s phone number. Now he acted like a feeble old man.
“Let’s try another lot,” he said. “It’s probably there.”
Lugging my suitcase, we dodged swarms of passengers headed to the main terminal. At the end of a long day and a bumpy ride from New York City, I was ready for bed.
From Dad’s frazzled look, I sensed the car wasn’t in the second lot either. He shuffled up and down rows of parked cars, staring at every blue Pontiac. None belonged to him.
“Do you have any idea where you parked?” I asked, trying to hide my impatience.
“I’m sure it’s the next one.” He pulled out a hanky and wiped his sweaty brow despite the Windy City chill.
While Dad wandered through yet another parking lot, I listened to the grumblings in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten since lunch. Then, I caught him fumbling to open a car that obviously wasn’t his.
“Damn it, where’s the car?”
Tears swelled in his eyes and I felt like a heel. I took the keys from his trembling hand and hugged him. “It’s OK, Daddy. We’ll find the car. Do you remember anything about where you parked? Color of the car next to yours? A sign near the exit?”
He shook his head no.
“Let’s keep trying,” I said.
Continued searching eventually turned up my father’s blue Pontiac. As we drove home, silence blanketed the car. I didn’t know what to say. Neither did my father.
My mother had warned me about Dad’s fading memory. She brushed it off to normal aging. So did I. After 65 who has pinpoint recall? But after watching him for a few hours, Dad’s problems were far more ominous. I hesitated to utter the A word but it was clear he showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
As a child, my father helped me unravel math. At the start of every school year, Dad covered our textbooks with plain brown paper and jotted our names on each one. He shopped for groceries every Friday night. Sometimes he even cooked. If I scraped my knee, he kissed it and promised I’d feel better. On weekends, he took my older brother and me for adventures. We rode the bus to Central Park and played by the Alice in Wonderland statue. In the summer we drove to Rockaway Beach and stuffed our faces with hot dogs and potato knishes along the boardwalk. We built sand castles, swam in the ocean and let waves crash over our sunscreen slathered bodies. For mindless fun he took us to the East River to watch rats scurry along the moldy rocks. As city kids we were easy to please.
Dad worked in a factory so we scrounged to make ends meet. If there was leftover money, Dad treated us to ice cream cones dipped in sprinkles or bought us cheap games in the corner toy store. Now and then he took our family to the Greek Diner for a hunk of meat loaf and mashed potatoes swimming in gravy.
We spent a few weeks each summer at my mother’s rural Alabama home. Horrified, I watched my grandmother Ludera strangle a chicken for the evening meal. I couldn’t get the bird’s desperate clucks out of my six-year old mind as it screeched its last breath. I refused to eat fried chicken for the rest of our trip. At home, I kept up my meatless protest. My father swore that chicken in New York City came from the grocery store so I backed down and ate chicken and dumplings.
My father didn’t heed the call to “go over there” in World War II because both his parents died young. He raised his only brother Nicky, about ten years his junior. Nicky was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer when he was only 39 years old. At Nicky’s funeral, my father lost it. That was the only time I saw him cry.
Every morning he rose early and read the New York Daily News. He soaked up the evening news with Walter Cronkite. He played Solitaire and did crossword puzzles. He may have only had a high school education but my father knew what went on in the world.
Despite working in a factory, Dad left every morning dressed in a clean white shirt and tie. In winter, he wore a long wool coat and a gray fedora. He looked snazzy for a man who earned so little money and handled the printing presses.
Dad’s quick thinking saved our shabby brick apartment building from burning to the ground when I was a kid. Late one night, a careless tenant tossed a lit cigarette down the dumbwaiter. Joe Cavanaugh, our shiftless superintendent, hadn’t emptied out the trash in several days. Within seconds, a fire swirled through the garbage chute. My mother called the Fire Department and dad, clad only in cotton pajamas, hustled up and down the hallway dumping buckets of water down the dumbwaiter. The fire doused the lights and all the tenants evacuated the building, but my dad continued to pour water down the garbage chute. Soon, the Fire Department arrived and took over. Dad felt funny standing outside in his skivvies but officials praised his heroism.
Alzheimer’s picked apart his mind slowly. First his memory frittered away. He quit smoking because he forgot how. That benefitted his health although we were sorry he quit under those circumstances. Over time his behavior worsened. He walked to a nearby vet’s office to surrender his cat. The vet called my mother who retrieved both Buffy their big hairy dog and my father. My mother’s frustrations bubbled over into squabbles with my father to act normal but he couldn’t.
Mix-ups over appliance use came next. Dad looked at a toaster and said, “What’s this for?”
“Nothing,” my mother said, fearing he might stick a knife into it. Out of necessity, my mother stopped enjoying toast for breakfast. Dad was a danger to himself and others.
In between bouts of confusion and memory loss wandering started. Dad had his favorite spots. He walked to the center of town where he greeted customers dining at the Chinese restaurant. Other times he shook hands with hordes of passengers boarding the commuter rail into Chicago.
A stranger once saw my mother accompanying my father into a doctor’s office. The man said, “Is this your husband?”
“Yes,” my mother said. “Why, do you know him?”
“He stands at the train station a few mornings a week and waves to everyone. He’s the greatest guy.” The man hugged my dad and went on his way. “Hey Don, we miss you at the train station.”
Smiling, Dad waved at the man.
My mother stuffed a small card with his name, address and phone number inside his pocket. That saved his life when he roamed about five miles away. A small business owner noticed Dad standing on a street corner, mumbling to himself. She brought Dad inside, served him orange juice and called the police. The officer drove him home, thanks to the card in his wallet. Dad offered to teach the officer how to audit tax returns yet knew little about tax returns. Thankfully the officer declined.
No longer able to manage his Social Security my mother had the money taken out of his name. Dad told the bank manager that my brother Donald, who called the fat guy, stole all his money. The only truth was my brother’s ample girth.
“I felt bad taking away his independence,” my mother said. “I had no choice. He stood on the corner and often donated cash to people. I was afraid someone might hurt him.”
Soon after, the state of Illinois cancelled his driver’s license. Convinced he could drive, Dad took the car while my mother napped. He creamed another car about four blocks from home. No one was hurt and the responding officer fortunately realized my father wasn’t all there. To keep him from driving my mother had to hide the car keys. He didn’t take the loss of his license very well.
Living with my father was difficult. He rarely slept, constantly paced, and was dangerous if left alone so my mother considered adult day care. At first, she hedged. “He won’t like it.”
“He won’t know where he is,” I said from my Boston home. “Give it a chance. You’ll feel better too.”
Sure enough, as soon as she dropped him off, Dad forgot where he was. He often forgot my mother’s name or they were married. Several days a week in adult day care eased my mother’s stress.
After a few months, Dad lost control of his bowels and bladder. He tried sawing off his toe to relieve an itch. My mother could no longer ignore the need for nursing home placement.
I visited him a few months later at the home. He had no idea who I was. He looked at me and said, “Don’t I know you?”
“Yes Daddy, you know me.” I hugged him.
“Meet me friend Terry,” I said. “She drove from Boston with me.”
“I’m black too,” Dad said, referring to Terry’s African American heritage.
“No Daddy, you’re not black.”
Dad’s behavior at the home cost my mother a bundle. A picture of each patient was posted outside their room for identification. For unknown reasons, that irked my father. He ripped them apart. The home put up new photos. He tore them down too. I’m not sure why he finally stopped.
Towards the end his mind was so sacked by disease that he tore up salt packets and poured them in his slippers. He lost his false teeth. The nursing home never found them. He told everyone his children were Korean. He held hands with a strange woman who he wanted to marry and have children with. He didn’t know his name. Finally, he stopped speaking. He refused food.
My father died almost on my birthday on May 30, 1992, the result of his lifelong tobacco habit. Lung cancer, not Alzheimer’s, caused his death. Celebrating my birthday anymore is just too painful. I loved my father for teaching me respect for all living creatures, including the alley cats my neighbors shooed away. My father showed dignity and pride working in a dirty stinking factory. Who cared if we watched river rats on Sunday afternoon? We shared quality time. He loved his little girl and I adored him. He was my hero. I always hoped I made him proud.